If there were any questions about Alan Dzagoev's ability to play on the biggest stage, they were answered in Russia's first UEFA EURO 2012 match against the Czech Republic as the 21-year-old produced a sublime performance, his two goals helping his side to an impressive 4-1 victory.
Yet for all his undeniable talent, Dzagoev is one of the most modest footballers you could want to meet and is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. "This was our opening match at the European Championship," he told UEFA.com. "It is hard to imagine a greater honour than this. The most important thing is that we won. The team won. The fact that I was the one to score – well, that's just a bonus. Now I have to continue in the same manner."
Things could have been so different for the PFC CSKA Moskva forward. Two months ago he broke a toe and it was touch and go whether he would actually play at this tournament. Though he made a quicker than expected recovery, there were still doubts about his fitness just days before the Czech game. He was also under pressure from Marat Izmailov for a starting place.
Dzagoev, who returned to action in Russia's friendly against Lithuania on 29 May, said: "Usually it is more difficult for me to get back into shape after an injury. I was able to do that quicker this time due to intensive training. There were doubts about whether I would be playing and a decision was only made on the day of the match."
Dzagoev was a constant thorn in the Czech Republic's side last Friday with his fluid movement and excellent link-up play. In fact he could have had a hat-trick in the first half alone, such was the frequency that he managed to get himself into good shooting positions. He received excellent support from his fellow attackers, Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, and so it is little surprise to hear him say that he enjoys the national team's style of play under Dick Advocaat.
"Our game is based on applying pressure and being aggressive," he said. "
He demands that we apply pressure everywhere on the pitch; after losing the ball we have to pull together straight away. The team understands him very well."
Such is the on-field understanding between Advocaat's players, he considers them "quite capable of winning" the EURO but knows "it is too early to get excited" with a big test against co-hosts Poland around the corner. "We have to continue the same way against Poland," he said. "If we win the next game, then it is 99% certain that we will get out of the group.
"I think the match will be more difficult than the first one because Poland have now seen us play," he added. "They have seen what happened so they will take it seriously. The same can be said for our team. [Poland] made a good impression [in the opening match] – in the first half they played well. In the second half something happened to them, perhaps they relaxed a bit as the Greeks were down to ten men. That often happens."
Dzagoev's impact will not surprise Russian football watchers who have been aware of his precocious talent for some time already. As a youngster he was constantly on the move, growing up in Beslan, then moving to Vladikavkaz to continue his footballing education. His displays at a youth tournament earned him an invitation to the famous Yuri Konoplev Football Academy in Tolyatti, which was partly set up by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, and by the age of 17 he was making his debut in the CSKA first team. A year later he had won his first cap for the national team, hitting a post on his debut against Germany.
"Of course I dreamed of playing in the Champions League and at the EURO but I would never have predicted that it would happen so soon," he said. "When I joined CSKA, I never thought that I would be in the first team scoring goals in three or four months. It all happened very quickly. At first I thought I was dreaming but I have got used to it now."
Of the future, the Russia forward says he is open to a move abroad, so long as it is the right option for both him and his club. But right now it is the EURO that occupies his thoughts day and night. "
I've struggled to sleep here. Maybe because I think about the matches too much and there is a lot of excitement on a subconscious level," he admitted. It is hard to sleep when you are living the dream.
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